The industrial dispute over the filming of the The Hobbit in New Zealand is a long way from reaching the status of seminal political events in New Zealand history such as the 1951 waterfront lockout or the 1981 anti-Springbok tour. But it’s certainly got some similarities. As with those highly important events that divided the country, the Labour Party has been highly pragmatic in its attempts to keep its distance lest any actions or statements of principle have any possibility of damaging its electoral popularity. So just as in 1951, when Labour Party leader Walter Nash declared that ‘We are not for the waterside workers, and we are not against them’, again in 2010 Labour is essentially saying the same thing, desperately avoiding having to take the side of the workers against the torrent of the campaign against them. [Read more below]
Peter Jackson and Warner Bros have very clearly launched a campaign against the unionised actors involved in the Hobbit production. This is not terribly surprising for anyone who has studied capital and labour relations. Whenever workers try to improve their lot, employers often strike back in the nastiest way possible – that’s simply the nature of capitalism. And they seek to use whatever mechanism – such as the media or the courts – to win their battle in the class struggle. Similarly, it’s not surprising that the employees are seeking greater subsidies from the state and are threatening what is essentially ‘capital flight’ if they don’t get what they want in terms of these tax breaks and pro-business employment laws.
But what is more interesting, however, is the public and political party response to this campaign by the creative industry bosses. Obviously the media has been incredibly biased towards Jackson and Warners Bros, and this has had a strong impact on the public (more of which in another blog post). But what about the political parties? In such a serious dispute, the public is partly educated and influenced by what our political leaders have to say about it. Yet we’ve heard virtually nothing but pro-Jackson propaganda from the politicians and parties. Not surprisingly, National has backed capital over labour in this dispute. But where are the so-called parties of the left?
Labour has been particularly silent and neutral on the issue. Party leader Phil Goff has just had a particularly good week in politics and has been buoyed by strong support for his supposed ‘shift to the left’, but seems to have run a mile away from what should be a bread and butter issue for a leader of a party that calls itself ‘Labour’.
In fact the only statement that I’ve seen from the Labour frontbench has been Trevor Mallard’s fence-standing blog post entitled Hobbit not simple, in which he actually lambasts the National Government for not having offered Warner Bros even more taxpayer funds to film here: ‘why isn’t the government at least thinking about raising our production rebates, to keep us in this very lucrative game?’ Mallard talks about his time as the Minister of Economic Development and how he bent over backwards to make things sweet for Hollywood employers, and he argues about how the 15% rebate deal could easily be extended to a 25% level and it’d still be ‘a bargain’ for New Zealand.
Going on the response to this blog post, Labour Party members and activists are in relatively comfortable with Labour’s stance that ‘We are not for the Hobbit workers, and we are not against them’. For example, one leftwing activist who comments throughout the blogosphere under the name ‘Carol’ has praised Labour’s neutral stance on the industrial dispute: ‘Good on Labour by supporting unions generally, but in not taking sides here. They (and the Greens) show some principle by staying above all the heated emotion and scaremongering’. This is rather craven stuff, and it indicates that many of those in the Labour Party clearly have no idea what ‘political principle’ means anymore.
Not surprisingly, one of the so-called ‘Labour union MPs’, Darien Fenton jumped into the blog debate to congratulate Carol’s lack of principle, saying ‘Carol – you’re talking good sense which is what a few others need to do. It’s become very ugly, and people need to start to think about who has really got the power in this situation’.
Not all Labour MPs are so keen to be seen as employer-friendly. Clare Curran wrote a more critical account of the industrial dispute entitled Hillside and the Hobbit:
I don’t think the unions have handled the issue particularly well. I’ll say that upfront. But it’s all about perception. And demonising a small union. Meanwhile the people of NZ are supposed to believe that this govt will do everything it can to keep the Hobbit in this country, when it’s likely that all the movie company really wanted was a bigger tax break. The union is the pawn in this. There will have been a deal stitched up already and the government will be able to announce it has “solved” the problem early next week.
So what about the Green Party? They Greens are often seen to be sympathetic to workers issues (see their electoral propaganda on the right), although that had much to do with the personal effort of Sue Bradford, who seems to have taken the focus on industrial issues with her when she effectively left the party earlier this year. Keith Locke seems to be the remaining pro-worker Green MP, but even he has been only lukewarm in his support for the Hobbit actors. For instance he blogged recently to say, Hobbit fallout mustn’t affect workers rights. Locke correctly stated that ‘The dispute over the Hobbit shouldn’t be used to attack workers rights’. But in making this argument he shied away from a wholehearted and staunch defence of the workers and instead focused more on the ramifications of the dispute for other workers. He ended by saying ‘Let’s be positive and hope that all the parties (Warners, Peter Jackson and the union) can move ahead and make a great movie’.
This was a rather moderate intervention into the dispute, and in the proceeding comments on the Frogblog post, senior Green activist ‘sprout’ was keen to emphasize that ‘Keith has been very careful that he sticks to the facts and made sure that a measured response comes from the Greens’. Other Greens were not so keen on Locke and the party showing any support for the Hobbit workers. For instance, another senior Green, ‘BJ Chip’ – who allegedly works as a communication advisor for the Greens in Parliament, and is definitely on the right of the party – argued that the Greens very moderate support for the workers was going too far and risking unpopularity:
Where the wheels come off for the party is that we should automatically assume that the UNION always is on the side of the angels here. That is what Keith is doing, what some of the others here are doing. This is not a Union. We don’t have to maintain “solidarity” even when we think there has been a mistake. We have a responsibility, indeed a NEED to think about it and try to get it right, not to assume. NOT to be seen as one-sided. The LAST thing this party needs is to get itself associated in the public’s mind, with the loser who called for this blacklist. That’s what I see here. The pre-election political suicide pact that we appear to enter into just before an election year… again… and with even less reason this time.
So it looks like the Greens may well have suddenly lost their thespian celebrity endorsements that the party traded so heavily on at the last election.
It was also informative to see that the Green Party mayor of Wellington, Celia Wade-Brown joined the anti-union protest in Wellington on Labour Day. Her support for the rally brought cheers, and when she was later asked to clarify where her support lay in the dispute, she stated the following:
I believe in fair employment and good jobs. There is nothing in that which is inconsistent with seeking to protect jobs in Wellington. It seems to me that people in the film industry here are more than happy to be working for Sir Peter Jackson and Sir Richard Taylor.
In contrast to all the invisible Labour and Green MPs, who clearly aren’t willing to support the workers in their fight for workers rights, actor and former Hobbit Ian Mune has staunchly defended the actors involved in the industrial dispute. In this excellent interview on Breakfast TV, Mune eloquently puts forward the actors’ case and shows why this is a dispute that all those that believe in workers’ rights should be supporting. His appearance puts Labour and Green MPs to shame. Why is it that Ian Mune can say these sorts of things but so-called leftwing politicians wouldn’t dare? Or are they simply that they are so divorced from leftwing ideology and the class struggle that such words and concepts don’t come easy?
Alarmingly, even National’s Bill English seems to have had more progressive public analysis of the issue. According to The Standard blog, ‘Bill English gets it. He’s smart enough to pull con-jobs of his own and he’s smart enough to see when one is being pulled on him. According to [journalist Tracey] Watkins, English describes this affair as nothing more than the producers trying to twist the government’s arm.’ And while some Beehive sources have said that the National Government will legislate to change employment law, Bill English has actually come out against this – according to political reporter Vernon Small, ‘He poured cold water on a possible labour law change. "I don't imagine changing the labour laws over one argument like this."’ So why isn’t even the Labour Party saying this?!
For more leftwing analysis of the Hobbit dispute, check out these links:
Chris Trotter: Misdirection (How "The Hobbit" Buried "Fairness at Work")
Chris Trotter: Jackson's Wounded Pride
Geoff Fischer: The Hobbit and Aussie rules
Workers Party: Statement on the Hobbit dispute
Workers Party: The Hobbit union witch hunt
Gordon Campbell: On the Latest stage of The Hobbit drama
John Minto: Jackson's shameful performance
Paul Roth: Academic slams 'Hobbit law' bid
Paul Roth: Interview on RNZ Nine-to-Noon
Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement - Behind the spectacle of the Hobbit
Whaleoil: Where is Goff?
Scott Hamilton: Off the fence, comrade!